Seeing Through Hearing
I’m an ear player…
By that I mean I’m good at hearing something and responding intuitively to it on my bass, without necessarily knowing exactly what I’m doing. This has been both advantageous AND a disability to me. Below I’ve listed some of the pros and cons of being this kind of a player. See if you identify with any of them. Hopefully I’m being open enough for you to do so.
This is a double-edged sword of sorts. On the one hand, playing intuitively by ear alone means I am free to play whatever I feel, without musical boundaries. It also means that I can kind of ‘gel’ quickly with others in a jam session or band situation and can feel my way through changes in progressions and rhythms. On the other hand I can be at a disadvantage in that if told beforehand, “We’re gonna be improvising over such-and-such modes, using such-and-such scales”, I would be asking for help quite quickly!
When composing music, I have always felt my intuitive methods (if you can call them that) have been a great help to me. Being able to play a few different instruments also means that I can effectively ‘jam’ with myself on whatever ideas spring to mind until I have something I think is worth keeping. Of course being able to hear where a composition may need to go next in my head, then to articulate that into actual playing has been a real asset. Where I think I fall down is when I try to rationalize what I do. For example, if asked to transcribe what I have produced it would take me a VERY long time to work it all out.
Practice time is a real interesting one. I mean, WHAT do I practice? Something in the back of my mind is saying, “Reading, scales, arpeggios, left-hand tech, right hand tech, theory!” All well and good and I would agree, ultimately rewarding! However I seem to have this drive to always be creating something new – a kind of wanderlust, if you will. My practice times invariably therefore consist of constantly creating new music. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I still get to work on technique and dexterity etc., in that sometimes I want to play something I can’t at first, so have to work at it. When I have tried (and I will again) to ‘get back to the basics’ of theory, it’s been a grind. I know I need discipline in this whole area.
I’ve played on several albums where I haven’t heard the tracks until the day of the recording. Usually I get several run-through’s to ‘get it under my fingers,’ and in most cases this is enough. Where I have come unstuck is when I’ve been presented with a sheet of dots! Now I know the notes enough to take it away for a while and learn it, but to sight-read on spec, this I cannot do (at the moment). It can therefore get rather embarrassing when I have to get the section played to me by someone who does read well until I have learned it.
Now this feeds my insatiable desire for experimentation and freedom to explore without boundaries! I think it is because through use of technology, I am producing music that is in of itself difficult to classify and to write down. From live-looping to effects, I find myself embracing new and wonderful sounds that I can create, oftentimes on the spur of the moment. Technology has extended the bass into a whole new universe of expression. The flip-side of this is that I can become dependent. I think there might be a healthy compromise between ‘out there’ and grass roots depth and knowledge of one’s art.
A Real-Life Example
My wife Jayne is a classically trained pianist. The one time we were playing together and I played a note that didn’t ‘in theory’ fit with what where the piece was going, she stopped and said, “You can’t play that note there”. My response was, “I just did!”
We had met as two musical polar opposites – Jayne as someone who could sight read orchestral staves incredibly well, but couldn’t improvise because the knowledge stifled her; and me as someone who could only improvise and had no proper ‘grounding’ if you will. The Holy Grail, I would guess, is somewhere in the center.
Back in the day, I could basically sight read bass and treble clef, but as the saying goes… “If you don’t use it, you lose it!”. Are you an ear player, a notation reader, a tab reader or a mixture of these? Do you identify with anything I’ve said? Can you bare your soul? Please post a comment; I would be very interested to hear what you have to say.